Last week documentary film maker and my friend Tim Wilson sent me a message and a link to the book Hand to Mouth: Living Bootstrap in America by Linda Tirado. I would love to read the book but I do not have the money to purchase it yet. I like to buy from the author’s website to give the author as much of the cost of the book as possible.
Linda Tirado had originally written an online response to a question in a forum, “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” I remember reading it in 2014/15. Her answer was extremely insightful and hit the nail on the head so accurately it brought tears to my eyes. Her answer was posted by the Guardian Newspaper, amongst others and was entitled Poor People Don’t Plan Long Term; We’ll Just Get Our Hearts Broken
Now she has released her book “Hand to Mouth; Living in Bootstrap America” and I look forward to reading it. While scrolling Facebook this morning, I saw that one of my friends had posted an excerpt from her book. The piece is Why Poor People Stay Poor. Again, it is so true that it makes me tear up. I had been there; my parents had been there; my friends had been there and some of them are still there.
My parents managed our poverty by denying themselves every luxury, working at grinding jobs that ruined their long term health and taking advantage of any extra money that came along – usually in the form of overtime work. They helped me to purchase my home several years ago which eventually led to me being able to manage my own poverty. Neither of us is rich or even middle class; but we’ve learned to live in poverty. There are levels to poverty, believe it or not, and now we live in one of the upper levels of poverty. We both have a small cushion of cash just in case our car breaks down, we need emergency medicine, and such.
We look at the history of poor houses and we think about how terrible it was and how we treated poor people ‘back then’. I have even seen responses to my history of poor houses in Nova Scotia with the quotes such as “Thank heavens it is much better now.” I was so outraged at those comments that I wrote a chapter about it in my book “A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia”. It is NOT so much better now and we STILL treat poor people abysmally simply because they are poor. Tirado wrote in this article
“Because our lives seem so unstable, poor people are often seen as being basically incompetent at managing their lives. That is, it’s assumed that we’re not unstable because we’re poor, we’re poor because we’re unstable. “
As Tirado wrote “It actually costs money to save money”
“It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any. Full stop. If I’m saving my spare five bucks a week, in the best-case scenario I will have saved $260 a year. For those of you that think in quarters: $65 per quarter in savings. If you deny yourself even small luxuries, that’s the fortune you’ll amass. Of course you will never manage to actually save it; you’ll get sick at least one day and miss work and dip into it for rent. Gas will spike and you’ll need it to get to work. You’ll get a tear in your work pants that you can’t patch. Something, I guarantee you, will happen in three months.”
Then my husband pointed out this article this morning…
Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi.
Yes, both my examples are American and we are Canadian. But it still happens here. Our smaller population, spread out over much bigger physical area means we don’t see it as often, do not hear about it as often. If it is happening in the United States, it can and does happen here. We are not that far away from them physically or culturally.
Modern day poor houses are in the form of sub standard housing, no housing, or living in your tent in the woods…as often happens here in rural Nova Scotia. A inconvenience to someone with money can be life changing to someone without money.
Often, when doing presentations about poor houses in Nova Scotia, I end my presentation with the sentence “If we don’t change the way we treat poor people today, someone, someday, maybe 50, 100 or 200 years from now will be writing a book about how badly we treated poor people in our time when we had the means and opportunities to do better. They will be talking about how ‘barbaric’ we were. And they’ll be right.”
We can do better.